Needed: Health and Mental Health Professionals to Volunteer

By Eilene E. Guy, American Red Cross Volunteer

Home fires, floods, hurricanes, wildfires. When American Red Cross volunteers respond to these disasters, they offer shelter, food and compassion — as well as health and mental health attention.

The public generally doesn’t see the health and mental health services. For the most part, they don’t show up in coverage of urgent disaster responses. But they’re critical in the first hours and days of helping victims cope with their new reality.

Lost medications, destroyed medical equipment, missed doctor’s appointments, emerging conditions such as COVID or the flu. These are all pressing needs that trained medical professionals know how to meet. And they can administer first aid for victims as well as disaster workers.

Meanwhile, licensed mental health professionals address the emotional side of a disaster, triaging who needs a few sessions with a skilled listener and who needs to be referred to local mental health resources for extended care.

Faced with an almost unprecedented number of natural and human-caused disasters, the Red Cross has launched a targeted recruitment drive: Be One, Bring One. The goal is to enlist volunteers from the medical and mental health fields. Trisha Horvath, RN MSN, from Kirtland, Ohio, is one of the leaders of this drive.

Trisha Horvath, Red Cross Volunteer, RN MSN, from Kirtland, Ohio

“I think all nurses are humanitarians,” Trisha said. “That’s why they do what they do, to alleviate suffering.”

The reality is, the vast majority of licensed medical and mental health professionals don’t have flexibility in their work schedules to volunteer for disaster response, much as they might like to, she said.

So Trisha is helping the Red Cross “think outside the box.” They’re emphasizing the opportunities for virtual “deployments” and the rewards to volunteers in the form of resilience training and CEUs — not to mention the personal satisfaction of helping people in their most vulnerable situations.

The Red Cross is approaching graduate school students and faculty as well as non-traditional workplaces where health and mental health professionals are found, such as insurance companies. Many of these folks already work virtually, so they know how to engage with people remotely.

Gail Wernick, the Red Cross Northern Ohio regional volunteer services officer, emphasizes that volunteer shift scheduling is flexible for on-call and scheduled commitments. Typically, volunteers are expected to be available, as needed, for two weeks every three months.

Gail Wernick, Red Cross Northern Ohio Regional Volunteer Services Officer

Gail’s goal is to have a roster of 21 trained disaster health volunteers with active and unencumbered licenses: RNs, LPNs, Licensed Vocational Nurses, Nurse Practitioners, Advance Practice Nurses, Medical Doctors, Doctors of Osteopathy or Physician Assistants. Tap here for more information or to apply.

Trisha is particularly concerned about what she calls the “dearth of mental health volunteers.” There are currently half of the goal of 17 such volunteers on the Northern Ohio team.

The Be One, Bring One campaign is aimed at currently licensed mental health professionals holding a master’s degree as well as retired mental health professionals who were in good standing when they retired and held a license within five years of onboarding as a Disaster Mental Health volunteer. Tap here for more information and to apply.

“We really appreciate the generosity of our health services and mental health volunteers. Needless to say, when people are struggling to cope with a disaster — – anything from a home fire to a flood or tornado — – immediate health and mental health support can be just as essential as food and shelter,” said Barb Thomas, Northern Ohio regional recovery manager for the Red Cross.

If you’re someone who’d like to help turn tragedy into hope in a rewarding opportunity to share your time and talents, visit redcross.org/volunteer to explore the wide variety of roles you can play, at home or away. And thank you!

Volunteers show their versatility and willingness to help

Northern Ohio disaster workers in Kentucky assist at the scene of a car crash

Arden Tohill and Al Irwin are volunteers who responded to the call for help from the people of Eastern Kentucky, after devastating flooding there in late July. Among the first to deploy to the devastated region, they have been driving an emergency response vehicle through “the hills and hollers of Eastern Kentucky,” as Arden puts it, delivering much-needed food, water and other essential supplies. But last Saturday, their day took an interesting and unexpected turn, as Arden wrote in an email:

Al Irwin, left, and Arden Tohill – Photo credit: Jim McIntyre/American Red Cross

Interesting day, Saturday. On the way back to the kitchen, we were among the first to come upon a traffic accident. Al (Irwin) is still a licensed EMT, so there was no question about stopping.

Some firemen, who were nearby doing wellness checks, heard the crash and came flying on their 4-wheelers. The only problem was that they weren’t packed for a medical situation. One of them saw that I had my nitrile serving gloves on and asked if we had any more so I ran back to the ERV, grabbed the box of gloves we had just purchased and the first aid kit for the minimal supplies we had. 

After they got the passenger out, Al was holding her head steady to prevent spinal injury until an ambulance arrived with a collar. Al had me take over while he went on to something else.  In a few minutes a doctor who was out running household errands popped in to examine the passenger.  He asked if anyone happened to have a small flashlight so that he could check pupil reaction . Of course I had one, so I passed head-holding to a fireman and dug the light out.

After they finally got the driver out and boarded, we started passing out water to the first responders.

Al Irwin and Arden Tohill preparing to distribute meals to residents in flood-stricken Kentucky at Carr Creek Elementary school in Knott County – Photo credit: Remy Kennedy/American Red Cross

We don’t know the condition of the passenger, but we do know that Arden Tohill and Al Irwin are two talented, dedicated volunteers and true humanitarians, as illustrated by the account above. We are grateful for their service to the Red Cross.

Editor’s note: As of Monday, August 8, more than 430 trained Red Cross disaster workers were on the ground in Kentucky helping to provide a safe place to stay, food to eat, critical relief supplies and emotional support for those affected by this tragedy. Volunteers are also replacing prescription medications, eyeglasses or critical medical equipment, like canes and wheelchairs, which were left behind in the rush to get to safety.

  • Sunday night, the Red Cross and our partners provided comfort and care for almost 500 residents in numerous shelters across Eastern Kentucky. In the last week, the Red Cross and our partners have provided a total of more than 4,500 overnight stays for residents forced to leave their homes.
  • With the support of local partners, the Red Cross has helped to provide some 56,000 meals and snacks to people in need. In addition, we’ve given out thousands of critical relief items to nearly 800 households.

Multiple weekend fires force dozens to flee their homes

Red Cross disaster workers respond to 17 calls for help

85 residents of Northern Ohio – including more than two-dozen children – spent part of the weekend seeking shelter, following 17 separate calls for assistance due to home fires. 

One of the first calls on Friday night came from Strongsville, where fire affected 18 units of an apartment building complex.

Disaster Program Specialist Jessi Graber responding to fire in Strongsville

Multiple family fires also occurred over the weekend in Elyria, Bowling Green, Rossford (Wood County) and Toledo, where three multiple family fires occurred.

Red Cross volunteer disaster responder Bob Osicki, also in Strongsville

“It’s important for people to use extreme caution if using space heaters or other alternatives to help heat their homes,” said Mike Parks, Regional CEO, American Red Cross of Northern Ohio.  “While we don’t determine the cause of these fires, we do know that alternative heating sources are a major contributor to home fires this time of year.”

Red Cross volunteers who responded to these fires provided the affected residents with more than $20,000 collectively in immediate financial assistance, to help these families find a safe and warm place to stay, get something to eat, replace clothing or fulfill other needs.

The funds are provided by generous donors, who contribute to the Red Cross disaster relief fund, to help during and after disasters big and small.

Donations to help people affected by disaster can be made here.  And to learn more about becoming a Red Cross volunteer disaster responder, visit us here.